Blanco’s Bar & Grill has been packing ‘em in for almost three decades. It’s a spot known for boot scootin’, great country bands and some pretty decent grub, too.

blancosThe ramshackle powder blue building sits on a huge shell-crushed lot on W. Alabama at Buffalo Speedway in the shadow of high-rise apartments and new office buildings. Pretty prime real estate for a country bar. But it didn’t start out that way.

About forty years ago the one-story wooden structure was built as a child daycare center.

“So it hasn’t really changed much,” quips manager and co-owner Karin Barnes.

Along the way it turned from babysitting kids to adults nursing beers, first as Hondo’s and then Blanco’s when Barry E. DeBakey, son of the late, great heart surgeon Michael DeBakey, bought the business that sits on land owned by the Taub family. Ben Taub and Dr. Michael DeBakey worked together to build Baylor College of Medicine into a major medical institution; the two families go back a long way.

“Barry was a great guy,” Barnes remembers. “He loved to dance. He would dance with every women in the place, asked every women, even the ones other men weren’t asking.”

DeBakey’s black and white photo, showing a rakish fellow in a cowboy hat, is displayed behind the bar, along with two deer heads: one with a shark’s snout, the other sporting red wax lips. Patrons like to throw beer tabs over the antlers. Which pretty much sums up Blanco’s. It’s a place to have fun, toss back a few and feel like you’re in a real county joint.

“I love working here,” says new bartender Jerri Huston. “I know we’re in the middle of the city but it feels like we’re out in the country.”

Huston is sort of the baby of Blanco’s family. Most of the staff has been here for years, if not decades. Jack-of-all-trades Raul Anaya has been with Blanco’s for 21 years. But if you really want to get to the heart of this historical dive, just chat with Barnes. A German-born gal who’s embraced all things Texas — she’s the petite blonde in the cowboy hat and matching western shirt — Barnes had just lost her job at a downtown bar 28 years ago when DeBakey was opening Blanco’s.

“I was driving by on my way to meet some girlfriends at Molina’s for lunch,” she says. “And here was this “Hiring” sign out front so I pulled in.”

She spent about two years waitressing before moving up to manager and, when DeBakey died in 2007, became co-owner with his son Barry C. DeBakey.

Barnes can tell you that it was one of the Taubs that brought the stuffed buffalo here years ago because Blanco’s sits near Buffalo Speedway. Slightly moth-eaten, the huge creature still lounges near the wall by the beer cooler. And why is the bathroom door so hard to find?

“We just kept putting up stickers and signed photos on the wall,” Barnes laughs. “And it got to the point the door was all covered up. Nobody in here the first time can find it.”

Things always seem to get added to the décor here. Like Kevin Foley’s tropical shirt. He was the only male bartender and when he retired his shirt was hung over the wooden bar. And then there are the crowns of cowboy hats. A popular hangout for Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo committee members, it’s a tradition that when they make director they sign their hat and add it to the wall collection. The brims are signed by other committee members, cut off, and taken home as souvenirs.

But for the most part, things are still pretty much as they were almost 30 years ago. Don’t come here expecting a fancy wine list or free Wi-Fi. There’s not even a computer on site. Barnes says if she can’t do it by hand, it doesn’t get done.

But there’s one thing that did change early on. When Barnes noticed business was slow on weekends, she closed Blanco’s and offered the space for private parties-- a move that turned out to be very fortuitous.

“There was a private party and they had booked Gary P. Nunn,” Barnes says of the man Gov. Rick Perry called The Music Ambassador of Texas. “And he fell in love with this place. He wanted to play here but we couldn’t afford him so he played for the cover.”

And Nunn still comes back to play at Blanco’s. He also got a lot of Austin’s so-called outlaw country bands to play here and now Blanco’s is home to such acts as Cory Morrow, Jake Hooker, Chris Wall and Bobby Flores. Larry Parcell, Honky Tonk Heroes’ singer and lead guitarist and master of ceremonies for Wednesday’s open mic night at Blanco’s, has been playing here since 1993.

“It’s not Jones Hall by any means,” he says. “But the music sounds good in here. And the crowds are great, anything from cowboys to French tourists.”

But there’s more to Blanco’s then just live Texas music Wednesdays through Fridays. There’s a whole flock of neighborhood folks who hang out here during the days.

“It’s like an alcoholic Rotary Club,” says Larry Nix. “We have a great group of old codgers who come here every day about 11:00 a.m. and hang out, accountants to handymen. There’s always someone here who knows something about a subject.”

And some come for the food.

“They have the best burgers here,” says Shirley Meadows, a lunchtime regular, of the barbeque and Monterey Jack cheese Blanco Burger.

Monday through Friday business folk from the area nosh on country favorites like chili cheese fries, stuffed jalapenos, beef tacos and the daily specials that range from chicken fried steaks smothered in gravy to meatloaf and fried catfish. Wayne Newton has eaten here and actor G.W. Bailey — often in town for his work with the Sunshine Kids Foundation — is a semi-regular.

The kitchen is open continuously Tuesday through Friday from 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. You can pop in for a chopped steak and curly fires or just order a plate of nachos and a cold one. And, yes, you can order a Cosmo here and not get thrown out, but beer is the drink of choice, with cold longnecks and buckets of beer for ten bucks.

Blanco’s is like a Texas Cheers, there are pool tables and everyone knows your name. But there are also some decidedly Texas touches, things you’d never find in Boston, like the stuffed coyote with a snarl and a ribbon collar perched atop an ancient cigarette machine. It’s all about Texas culture here — beer, boot scootin’ on the dance floor and Texas bands.

“It’s been a wonderful ride,” Barnes says of her nearly three decades at Blanco’s. “I’ve enjoyed it, it’s like family. I’ll stay a few more years, I can’t stand being idle.”

And, hopefully, Blanco’s will stay around even longer. A little piece of Houston’s history, just an old-school honky tonk in River Oaks.

Blanco’s Bar and Grill
3406 West Alabama Street
Houston, TX 77027-6004

By: Marene Gustin